One definite proof of the benevolence of the universe, my friend regularly insists, is that just when you need it most—especially if you haven’t even known that you needed it—the right book falls off the shelf into your hands.
I was in the midst of an overdue dusting and tidying in my bedroom. The small bookcase at the head of the bed was, as usual, stacked precariously with too many books. There were books I wanted to read, books others had shoved into my hands with a well-meaning “you should read this,” and books I was actually reading, each with a bookmark holding my place. As I began sorting the last category, the heaviest volume (hardcover no less) slid to the floor, just missing my foot. Its bookmark fell out as I picked it up—In Search of Stones by M. Scott Peck.
It had disappointed me months ago when I began reading, and I had almost decided to consign it to a give-away box. Since Peck’s earlier books had once taken their turn as helpful companions on my journey, I had expected too much from this one. Some hope apparently remained, hence its place on the shelf. Randomly leafing through to see where the bookmark should go, I began reading:
But what I am most grateful to [our children] for is the learning they have wittingly or unwittingly provided me. And are still providing.
The learning these days is all about separation.
I was not prepared for it. (152)
Not bothering to find a chair, I stood in the middle of the room, transfixed, absorbing Peck’s description of his struggle to let his children “individuate” – to separate. His rueful admission that the “professional literature doesn’t talk about how much it can hurt for all concerned” (152) was precisely what I needed to read – exactly then.
That it had been a book by M. Scott Peck that had just fallen off the shelf into my hands seemed especially serendipitous. It was Peck who had defined grace as “a powerful force originating outside of human consciousness which nurtures the spiritual growth of human beings” (The Road Less Travelled). Something there is in the universe that wishes us well, whether we name it grace or God or name it not at all. Something that drops the right book into our hands at the right time.
Such grace-full falling off the shelf, I have discovered, can happen in two or three installments, even widely separated in time. I think now of the poem I “happened” to read in a journal I never subscribed to but had picked up one day because a colleague insisted that I should submit a paper to it. I decided against the submission, but did copy that one poem for my files, where it languished, forgotten after that first charmed reading. About 15 years later, while searching for poems to use in a discussion group on poetry and theology, this poem, “The Road to Emmaus” by Christopher Mann, “came to hand.” How else shall I describe its unlooked-for appearance? I had just read T.S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi” and now heard, with astonishment, the similar cadences and knew at once that the poems wanted to be read and discussed together.
Now that I think about it, I’m convinced that it’s possible for the “right” book to fall off my shelf into someone else’s hands, even in some other province, if need be.
Recently, while seeking distraction from a letter that refused to be written, I let CBC’s website tempt me into watching an excellent interview with Brie Larson, who plays a central role in the acclaimed movie Room based on a book of the same title by Emma Donoghue. Larson’s articulateness and passion for her work had two consequences: one was that I sent the link for the interview to my sister, a retired child psychologist living in Edmonton; the other was that Room now fell off an obscure shelf where I’d shoved it over a year ago. I’d bought it because of a persuasive friend, but knowing something of its plot line, I had been too cowardly to read it. Now I did. So did my sister. She also read another novel by Emma Donoghue, and then two other non-fiction books on childhood trauma that were clearly necessary for her. In a grateful email, she blessed me for having begun the “whole sequence.” How could I possibly take credit for having participated, unwittingly, in that mysterious loving grace that topples books off shelves into our hands?
The opening stanza of “The Road to Emmaus” begins, “It’s not the friendliest of villages, Emmaus,/ . . . hardly the place to expect revelation, / if revelation’s the word—I leave that to you.”
“Something there is in the universe that wishes us well,
whether we name it grace or God or name it not at all. Something that drops the right book into our hands at the right time. ”
(Originally published in Prairie Messenger April 20, 2016)